Jessamyn's Regency Costume Companion: early 1840s gown


The Corset.

With the rapidly expanding skirt volume and tightening bodice of the 1840s came an increasingly elaborate array of undergarments. One could easily spend more time on a complete set of underthings than on the gown!

First and foremost is the corset. Right around 1840-41 was a shift from the corded, busk-fronted cotton corsets that had developed from Regency styles to a much more rigid, long-waisted design that had the effect of pushing the bust practically into the armpits. (Below left is a circa 1830 corset from the Centraal Museum in the Netherlands. Below right is a late-1840s daguerreotype of an unknown woman from the Science Museum.)

I'm sort of trying to straddle these styles, and in the interests of time I don't want to make a new corset specially for this project. I currently have a corset of the 1850s-60s and one circa 1880, and interestingly, the 1880s corset is a much better match for this era than the earlier one. The 1850s corset is fairly short-waisted and quite curvy, whereas the 1880s version is much longer and straighter over the belly. Also, because I am small-busted and made the 1880s corset quite snug through the bust, it is actually closer to the 1840s line than it would have been if I had left it as roomy there as I should have.

Obviously it's not perfect, but I think with the style of dress I have in mind it will be fine.

The Petticoats.

Next in importance are the petticoats. Although an enormous dome-shape was desired, the hoop would not be rediscovered until the mid-1850s - all that volume has to be achieved with petticoats alone! (In fact the hoopskirt was sometimes known as the "artifical crinoline" when it was introduced - crinoline refers to the French words for horsehair and linen, materials for creating stiffened fabric petticoats.) With the advent of the hoop the skirts became wider at the hem, but in the 1840s a high, rounded bell-shape was in ascendance, with a bit of extra fullness at the back.

Absolute stacks of petticoats were worn, and it's all a little overwhelming under there. Fortunately, the excellent costuming site Demode offers a very helpful rundown on creating an 1830s-40s sillhouette with petticoats (plus a small bustle). Since the weather may be quite warm I'm interested in keeping the skirts off my legs as much as possible, so I think that my base piece will be a very heavily corded petticoat - rather more like this one in the Manchester Gallery of Costume than Demode's in the density of cords, although the first example is too early (and therefore not full enough).

Next I need at least one flounced petticoat, probably two. That'll be another nuisance, and a lot of material - those flounces really eat up the yards. Again, I think I will increase the number and decrease the size of the flounces from Demode's, in the hopes of achieving more volume without having to fall back on nylon netting. (But I'm not above nylon netting if I have to use it! It's just scratchy and uncomfortable in addition to being wildly un-period.)

Then I'll need a plain top petticoat, perhaps with a bit of lace at the bottom (I have quite a lot of nice cotton Cluny-style lace that would do nicely) to cover up the lumpiness of the flounces. This should be in as smooth a cotton as possible, so the dress won't stick to it.

The Bustle.

It's surprising to learn that bustles were far from being an invention of the 1870s - in fact they had been used, on and off, since the 1780s! However, the size and shape varied widely, as did the desired effect. In the 1830s and '40s the bustle (also known in some quarters as a bumpad) was quite broad and shallow, often sporting a number of flounces at the edge or even consisting solely of flounces (like the 1833 example at the Manchester Gallery, shown at right.) Its purpose was to increase the volume at the back of the skirt, but only in conjunction with the petticoats - it wasn't mean to have the "add-on" look that later bustles offer.

I think I will make a padded crescent like Demode's, but with broader flounces around the edge.

The Shift.

I'll need some sort of shift as the very bottom layer, but since only I will see it I will push it to the bottom of the to-do list and, if necessary, make do with an out-of-period one. I definitely need something between myself and my corset, but to have it be period-correct will be a luxury.

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Copyright 2005 by David and Jessamyn Reeves-Brown. All rights reserved.